The English don’t have much architecture to call their own. We borrowed the Romanesque, the Gothic and the classical from others. We adapted terraced housing from the Dutch. We can claim original authorship from the Arts and Crafts movement and the emergence of the suburban house via Norman Shaw at Bedford Park and the ensuing Garden City movement. Then, of course, there was hi-tech, which turned Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw into international names.
More recently, we’ve been leading the way in retrofit. I became aware of this recently when an eminent group of jurists asked me to arrange a tour of the best recent buildings in London. As I put together the list I was surprised to realise that so many entailed the adaptation of older buildings. The tour included David Chipperfield’s Royal Academy, integrating the old Museum of Mankind with the existing exhibition space and the RA Schools; Peter Barber’s homeless housing at Mount Pleasant; Amanda Levete’s new porcelain piazza and exhibition hall at the V&A; Caruso St John’s new masterplan for Tate Britain; and Stanton Williams’ Central St Martins at King’s Cross as well as its opening up of the Floral Hall and ancillary spaces at the Royal Opera House.
Each of these successfully integrated substantial changes to the fabric of the existing building, new materials with contemporary detailing that respected and often enhanced the original structure. It is an approach that owes much to the influence of Carlo Scarpa who showed how the contemporary and historic could sit comfortably together. His work was promulgated in the UK by architects like Richards MacCormac and Murphy at a time when the consensus was that historic buildings should be restored to their original materials and detailing and that such work was the responsibility of the surveyor, not the architect.
Over the past 40 years, architects have become more and more involved in the restoration of buildings – the groundbreaking work of conservation architects Donald Insall and Julian Harrap gave the work greater respectability. But it was probably the success of buildings like Foster’s British Museum courtyard and Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin that made everyone realise the creative potential of the marriage of modernism and history.
The reason we have become so good at retrofit in London is because of our pragmatic approach to history. The City is a prime example of the contrast between us and other European capitals where the old town, the altstadt, the città vecchia, is protected in aspic. The Square Mile, although the urban grain reflects its 14th-century street layout, has adapted to change while retaining much of its character. I regularly give visiting Chinese city mayors and planners tours of the New London Architecture model. The two topics they are most interested in are the congestion charge and our ability to integrate modern development with the historic city.
Designers now accept retrofit, not only because of the way that contemporary insertions can highlight a building’s history but because it can ensure it adapts to modern use – the changes at the Royal Opera House, for instance, focus on a much more inclusive and open environment. The concept of long life, loose fit, is also very sustainable. It is a practical approach to development – not necessarily frugal, major interventions were needed at the V&A and the Opera House – but it can create a rich conversation between the old and the new, something that is inherent in London’s architectural DNA.
In his latest OnLondon column, Peter Murray argues that London’s biggest strength is in its adaptability